One for Sorrow, Two for Joy review – bittersweet novel about rites of passage | Fiction

Set in London and Ghana, Marie-Claire Amuah’s bittersweet novel follows the rites of passage of an ambitious young woman whose bruised childhood threatens to derail her career.

Stella and her brother, Sol, children of Ghanaian parents, grew up in south London. Their mother works long hours as an NHS neonatal nurse. Their father, an auto mechanic, feeds Sol but is violent towards his wife and daughter. Eight-year-old Stella observes: “When my father gets angry, it’s like lightning, thunder and hailstones. He beats Stella for being “in-sol-ent” and she doesn’t understand why her mother and Sol don’t intervene. To make matters worse, Stella has Addison’s disease, which affects her mood and energy. School and friends are Stella’s salvation until her parents divorce.

Amuah, a British-Ghanaian white-collar crime lawyer, has created a smart and likeable narrator that we are looking for quickly. Stella enrolls at Bristol University: “The only black girl in a hall of two hundred people.” Here, she is ostracized when she reports the behavior of a drunken white student who exposes himself. She decides to study law, but just as her career begins to take off, her personal life implodes.

Stella’s boyfriend Christian seems perfect until he loses his temper. Amuah explores the scourge of domestic violence – how the trauma is often intergenerational and the damage lasting. She also examines the effects of violence on her viewers, too paralyzed to help. Stella’s pain reveals itself unexpectedly. She becomes more and more superstitious, convinced that her happiness depends on the daily appearance of two magpies.

There are sometimes too many explanations in the first person narration. Amuah clearly wants to reflect Stella’s naivety when describing her childhood, but that sometimes slows down the narrative. However, its interrogation of trauma is powerful and is perfectly balanced with joyful accounts of encounters between friends. Like her protagonist, Amuah takes time to find her feet, and the last 100 pages of the novel are the strongest. A sincere start.

  • One for sorrow, two for joy by Marie-Claire Amuah is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Irene B. Bowles